Optimism frames builders convention in Atlantic City

AtlanticBuildersConvention

By KEVIN POST, Press of A.C. Business Editor | Thursday, April 15, 2010

ATLANTIC CITY – Builders and the companies selling to them at Wednesday’s opening of the Atlantic Builders Convention welcomed the signs of a slow recovery in their industry.

Solar energy, engineering and resort home-building companies said the worst of the home-building slump is past, but economic forecasts at the convention suggest growth will remain modest until next year.

Kelly Whitfield and Christopher Brown, of Brite Idea Energy, a 10-employee solar firm in Egg Harbor Township, said the recession has motivated home builders and buyers to look for energy savings.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in new-home builders’ interest in having solar projects installed,” Whitfield said. “I talked to three builders already today who want to offer that as an option.”

John Hooper, owner of Hooper Builders in Sea Isle City, said that in the future utility costs will be as important as mortgage costs to home buyers.

Last year, Hooper said, his company built the first home in Cape May County under the National Association of Homebuilders green building program.

Carl Gaskill, vice president of Fralinger Engineering, a 45-employee firm in Bridgeton, said he’s seeing significant improvement in the market for his company’s site-plan and development services.

“The last couple of years, you couldn’t tell the difference between January and July. This year, you’ll certainly be able to tell the difference,” Gaskill said.

The building industry’s worst slump in half a century was compounded in this region by unprecedented bad weather, he said.

“I’ve been doing this for close to 40 years now, and I just have never seen the groundwater table this high or the problems that are out there,” he said.

Bill Vota said Schramm & Hallman Inc., the five-person Cape May home-building firm he co-owns, was protected from the downturn until late last year by a backlog of work to be done.

“Cape May is pretty steady. There are a lot of old houses, and a lot of repair work that needs to be done no matter what,” Vota said.

For new homes, however, the resort city followed the national pattern.

“New construction almost came to a halt. Where you used to see 10 or 12 new houses going up, there’s now two or three,” he said.

But he, too, sees improvement. “It’s kind of leveled out. The market’s looking better,” he said.

Housing forecasts given at the start of the mid-Atlantic region convention suggest the recovery will be slow, at least until next year.

David Crowe, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders, predicted housing starts will increase to 643,000 this year from 554,000 last year – a downward revision from his January forecast of 700,000 in 2010.

He predicted New Jersey housing construction would return to 80 percent to 90 percent of its normal level by the end of next year.

Jeffrey Otteau, president of East Brunswick-based Otteau Valuation Group, saw some signs of recovery statewide but sluggishness in the southern New Jersey counties.

The state’s foreclosure and mortgage delinquency rates are less than half of those nationally, Otteau said, and unsold housing inventory in the state dropped from 59,051 to 54,926 last year.

But inventory levels are highest in southern counties, with Atlantic County having a 13-month supply of unsold houses at current sales rates, Cumberland County a 16-month supply, Cape May County 29 months and Ocean County 11 months, Otteau said.

Brown and Vota said the builders convention and trade show – continuing through Friday with about 500 exhibitors, down about 100 due to the recession – is a good place to find new products, contacts and suppliers.

Brown said Brite Idea Energy has residential jobs in Egg Harbor Township and Toms River and a commercial project in Pennsylvania that it lined up at last year’s show.

Vota said he finds relief at the show, too.

“We also come here for a little break because in springtime we’re pulling our hair out. Cape May being a seasonal town, usually everybody wants everything done by the middle of May,” he said.

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Posted in Market Conditions, Real Estate, Sea Isle City

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